Lamburn, Richmal Crompton (1890–1969)

views updated

Lamburn, Richmal Crompton (1890–1969)

English author and creator of William, the legendary scamp of British children's literature, who was featured in many of her books. Name variations: (pseudonym) Richmal Crompton. Born Richmal Crompton Lamburn on November 15, 1890, in Bury, Lancashire, England; died on January 11, 1969, in Borough Green, Kent, England; second daughter and one of three children of Edward John Sewall Lamburn (a cleric and schoolmaster) and Clara (Crompton) Lamburn; sister of Gwen Lamburn Disher and author Jack Lamburn (also known as Jack Lambourne, John Crompton); attended St. Elphins School; Royal Holloway College, University of London, B.A. (honors), 1914; never married; no children.

Selected works:

Just William (1922); More William (1922); The Innermost Room (1923); William Again (1923); The Hidden Light (1924); William the Fourth (1924); Anne Morrison (1925); Still William (1923); The Wildings (1925); David Wilding (1926); The House (1926, republished as Dead Dwelling, 1926); Kathleen and I, and, of Course, Veronica (1926); William the Conqueror (1926); Enter—Patricia (1927); Leadon Hill (1927); Millicent Dorrington (1927); A Monstrous Regiment (1927); William the Outlaw (1927); William in Trouble (1927); Felicity Stands By (1928); The Middle Things (1928); Mist and Other Stories (1928); Roofs Off (1928); The Thorn Bush (1928); William the Good (1928); Abbot's End (1929); The Four Graces (1929); Ladies First (1929); Sugar and Spice and Other Stories (1929); William (1929); Blue Flames (1930); William the Bad (1930); William's Happy Days (1930); The Silver Birch and Other Stories (1931); William's Crowded Hours (1931); Marriage of Hermione (1932); Portrait of a Family (1932); The Odyssey of Euphemia Tracy (1932); William the Pirate (1932); William the Rebel (1933); Chedsy Place (1934); The Old Man's Birthday (1934); William the Gangster (1934); Quartet (1935); William the Detective (1936); Caroline (1936); The First Morning (1936); Sweet William (1936); There Are Four Seasons (1937); William the Showman (1937); Journeying Wave (1938); William the Dictator (1938); Merlin Bay (1939); William and the A.R.P. (1939, republished as William's Bad Resolution, 1956); Steffan Green (1940); William and the Evacuees (1940); Narcissa (1941); William Does His Bit (1941); Mrs. Frensham Describes a Circle (1942); Weatherley Parade (1944); William Carries On (1945); William and the Brain Trust (1945); Westover (1946); The Ridleys (1947); Family Roundabout (1948); Just William's Luck (1948); Jimmy (1949); Frost at Morning (1950); William the Bold (1950); Jimmy Again (1951); William and the Tramp (1952); Linden Rise (1952); The Gypsy's Baby (1954); William and the Moon Rocket (1954); Four in Exile (1955); Matty and Dearingroydes (1956); William and the Space Animal (1956); William and the Artist's Model (1956); Blind Man's Bluff (1957); William's Television Show (1958); Wise Man's Folly (1959); The Inheritor (1960); William the Explorer (1960); William's Treasure Trove (1962); William and the Witch (1964); Jimmy the Third (1965); William and the Pop Singers (1965); William and the Masked Ranger (1966); William the Superman (1968); William the Lawless (1970).

A British schoolteacher who delighted youngsters and adults alike with her lively, 11-year-old anti-establishment hero, "Just William," novelist Richmal Crompton Lamburn had hoped to build her reputation as a writer of serious fiction; she would view the popularity of the William stories as something of a mixed blessing. In fact, Lamburn frequently referred to her literary brainchild as her "Frankenstein monster." "I sometimes say that I must have got rid of all my criminal tendencies in William, and if I hadn't written the William stories I might have ended in jail, but he just sort of kept me to the grindstone," she said shortly before her death. "He takes possession of every story I try to write, even though they are not about William."

Christened Richmal, but known as "Ray" to her friends, Lamburn was born in 1890 and grew up in the old mill town of Bury, Lancashire, England, where she was part of a close-knit Victorian family. Her father Edward, a cleric who had chosen to become a schoolmaster instead of taking a parish, believed strongly in the benefits of education for his daughters as well as his son, and Richmal and her elder sister Gwen Lamburn (Disher) became model students. Little brother Jack, who was the inspiration for many of William's adventures, was less disciplined, although he would later pursue a literary career of his own. Edward tested his children on history, geography and literature, and posted a world map in the bathroom for them to study. A sensitive and shy child, Lamburn frequently escaped to the attic, a quiet refuge where she read and composed her first stories and poems. She also edited The Rainbow, a magazine with an elite circulation of two subscribers, her brother and her rag doll, Lena.

After attending a local private school, Richmal and Gwen entered St. Elphins, an austere boarding school for daughters of the clergy located in Warrington, and dormed together. The school was relocated to Darley Dale, Derbyshire, following an outbreak of scarlet fever three years later in 1904. Jack, not strongly school-minded, remained a pupil in his father's school and their relationship was volatile. Shedding some of the shyness that had marked her childhood, Lamburn excelled in academics, particularly Latin, and contributed to the school magazine. She also enjoyed amateur theatricals and wrote plays for her schoolmates to perform. After graduating, she won a Founder's Entrance Scholarship to Royal Holloway College in London in 1911. Although remembered as a quiet, modest student, she thrived in the university environment, majoring in classics and enjoying a variety of athletics. She graduated in 1914, "being the best candidate of her year."

After college, Lamburn returned to St. Elphins, where she taught classics from 1914 to 1917. Her sister Gwen had married Thomas Disher and moved to London. When their father Edward died in 1915, their mother Clara sold the family home and moved to the Disher house. Missing her family, Lamburn followed in 1917. She bought a home and took a position as classics mistress at Bromley (Kent) High School, a private girls' day school in suburban London, to which she biked daily for the next six years. She loved her job and was popular with her students, who called her "inspiring and enthusiastic," with "laughter and fun … essential ingredients of the lessons."

Along with her teaching, Lamburn's writing career flourished. Following World War I, a number of magazines seeking short fiction appeared. Lamburn achieved her first professional publication in The Girl's Own Paper. Second jobs were forbidden by the school, so she submitted the story "Thomas" under the name Richmal Crompton. Her moonlighting was shortly discovered, but the Crompton stories were so popular that Lamburn was not censured. "Rice-Mould," which appeared in Home Magazine (February 1919), was Lamburn's first story containing the character of William. Almost from their inception, all of the William stories were illustrated by Thomas Henry, a talented artist from Nottinghamshire, whose lively style captured the character perfectly. Although Lamburn kept up a lively correspondence with Henry through the years, she met him only once, at a luncheon in Nottingham in 1958. Following his death in 1962, the William stories were illustrated by Henry Ford.

In the summer of 1923, not long after the publication of two volumes of collected William stories, Just William and More William, Lamburn was stricken with polio which left her without the use of her right leg. Forced to give up full-time teaching, she concentrated on her writing career. From 1922 to 1969, she produced 38 William titles, which were subsequently adapted into four films, and one radio and two television series. The character of William, described by Mary Cadogan as "anarchic, disheveled, obstructionist, opinionated and unbookish to the point of Philistinism," was the direct opposite of his creator, who was a staunch Conservative and a member of the Church of England. The first William stories, written for an adult audience, were Lamburn's best; the later efforts, produced exclusively for children, lost some of their wit and charm. By the 1960s, Lamburn felt "written out" and thus devoted much of her time to helping with the film and television scripts of her William stories. The series was never popular in the United States, because, in the opinion of Margaret Masson , America had its own version of William in the character of Penrod Schofield, created by Booth Tarkington. But Lamburn had a different take, believing that American children developed "straight from the cradle to adolescence," thus bypassing the prepubescent period of 11-year-old William Brown. Only two of Lamburn's non-William novels—Dread Dwelling (1926) and The Old Man's Birthday (1934)—were published in America.

Lamburn also produced some 40 other titles, many of them love stories which she turned out at the rate of one a year, but none had the appeal of the William books. Her early novels, The Innermost Room (1923) and Anne Morrison (1925), are interesting mainly for their autobiographical content; Anne Morrison provides a portrait of her father and an interesting account of Lamburn's school days.

Prevented from biking by the paralysis in her leg, Lamburn bought a car, traveled Europe with friends, kept detailed diaries, and doted on her family. With earnings from her William stories, she built a home on Oakley Road in Bromley Common, and her mother Clara came to live with her. A smoker in a day when few women smoked, Lamburn was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was in her 40s and had a mastectomy at home. She was nursed back to health by her mother, who lived with her until her death from a heart attack in 1939.

With the outbreak of World War II, her sister Gwen, who had divorced in 1935, moved into Lamburn's house at Bromley, bringing along her two daughters Margaret and Richmal Disher. Thereafter, Lamburn was their primary source of financial support. Her sister's son had already joined the war effort, and Lamburn volunteered for the Auxiliary Fire Service. During the war, she had a home built for her sister and nieces; after they moved in 1943, Lamburn lived alone with her dog Ming.

In the 1950s, she moved to a smaller house in Chislehurst, Kent, and continued to write. During her later years, Lamburn was drawn to religious mysticism and developed a belief in reincarnation. The author enjoyed good health until 1960, when she twice broke a leg. The following year, she suffered a heart attack and had several ongoing illnesses but fought hard to return to a full, independent life. After spending an evening with her family, Lamburn died of a second heart attack on January 11, 1969, with a new William story outlined on her desk. Her niece Richmal Disher Ashbee , to whom Lambert was closely attached, completed the story from her aunt's notes, and it appeared in the final William collection, William the Lawless (1970).


Cadogan, Mary. "Richmal Crompton," in This England. Winter 1990.

Commire, Anne, ed. Something about the Author. Vol. 5. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

suggested reading:

Cadogan, Mary. Richmal Crompton: The Woman Behind William. London: Unwin, 1986.

Williams, Kay. Just Richmal: The Life and Work of Richmal Crompton Lamburn, 1986.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts